Ten years after Katrina, New Orleans’ recovery remains uneven

by @Soledad_OBrien @sameenamin August 28, 2015 5:15PM ET

Much of New Orleans East remains blighted and residents feel neglected by city leaders, a decade after Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina
New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS ­– For decades, Dawn Hebert has lived in New Orleans East, a mostly suburban area 20 minutes outside the city center. She loves her home, but says now she’d move away if she could.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 and the city’s flood-protection system failed to keep out the storm surge, much of the East was underwater. Ninety percent of the area’s housing units were damaged – among the highest rates in the city – leaving Hebert and many residents displaced.

Two months after the levees broke, Hebert returned to survey the damage and found her home under six feet of water. She received enough flood insurance money to rebuild, but many of her neighbors were not as fortunate.

Ten years later, recovery in New Orleans East has been painfully slow. The East, which has regained 80 percent of its pre-Katrina population, is a large and diverse area with a median income of around $48,000. But while other parts of the city have seen revitalization after the storm, New Orleans East residents say city leaders are not investing in their community. 

Since Katrina, poverty has risen and property values have fallen in the East – and abandoned houses still dot the landscape.

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Even a decade after the storm, abandoned and dilapidated homes can be seen across all of New Orleans East. Developed in the 1960s, the East became the place where many middle- to upper-class African-Americans chose to live. Before Hurricane Katrina, the area had a population of about 90,000. Today, large parts of the area remain blighted. 

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"This is actually the smell we all smelled right after the hurricane, when we came back to our homes," said Hebert, standing inside one abandoned home in New Orleans East.

Hebert says the homes that have been neglected for the last 10 years lower property values of the entire area. "It's very damaging, because I, personally, would not want to live next to this," she said.

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This movie theater in New Orleans East was one of the many area businesses neglected after Hurricane Katrina. Hebert says few businesses have returned since the storm, a sore point for residents left without shopping or entertainment. Now, the vacant building, untouched since Katrina, is seen as a deterrent for any new businesses. “Why should a business come here when this neglect has been allowed to go on for so long?” asked Hebert.

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The Lakeview neighborhood lies adjacent to New Orleans East, but abandoned properties here are rare. Instead, active rebuilding and new development continue a decade later. Lakeview took the brunt of a major levee break, but now has some of the highest property values in the city.

Kevin Gotham, a sociology professor at Tulane University, has been tracking redevelopment in New Orleans. He says in the absence of a government-led rebuilding plan, residents were on their own, meaning that wealthier neighborhoods rebounded faster than poorer ones.

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Al Petrie, a lifelong Lakeview resident, took us on a tour of his house, which was rebuilt and is now better than ever. Petrie, who took the lead in rebuilding his neighborhood, says part of the reason this area came back so strong was the close-knit community that existed before the storm.

Lakeview was one of the few neighborhoods in the city that remained predominately white after the city’s population achieved a black majority in the ‘80s. Today, many residents here are well-connected and had the resources to rebuild on their own. 

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Blight is still rampant in places like the Lower Ninth Ward, which received some of the worst flooding and is home to some of New Orleans’ poorest residents, most of whom are black. Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, says part of the reason rebuilding is slow is that federal initiatives like Road Home Program provided rebuilding money based on pre-storm values of homes.

Hill says that was harmful to black homeowners. “I think it’s important to realize how the history of segregation … led to these neighborhoods with depressed home values,” she said. Hill points to discriminatory policies like redlining, where banks would refuse to lend to people hoping to buy houses in integrated neighborhoods, to explain why black neighborhoods still have lower home values.

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One major sore point for residents is the Lake Forest Mall. Built in the ‘70s, the mall was once one of the largest shopping centers in Louisiana, but it never reopened after Katrina. For its part, the city says they have invested millions of dollars in New Orleans East, highlighting a new hospital, library and restored park, among other projects.

But Hebert feels like progress is limited and city leaders aren’t doing enough. “Honestly, if I could move today, I would,” she said.

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